[Chtechcomm] History and Context of IT committee plans

Terri Buckner tbuckner at ibiblio.org
Tue Aug 2 19:20:23 EDT 2005

At our July meeting, the new members asked for some context to the plans 
being discussed. I've endeavored to write a not-so-short history and 
reference those documents that I think are most relevant. I hope this is 
what you all wanted. -- Terri


The TechComm (also known as the IT Committee and CTC) was first created, 
through a Council resolution, in 1999. At that time, the town did not 
have an IT director. Bob Avery was employed, through the Finance Dept., 
to keep the desktops and network operational. In 2000, the TechComm 
presented Council with a comprehensive technology plan with one of the 
items being to create an independent technology department with its own 
director. That suggestion was adopted in 2001 and Bob was promoted. 
Other items on the technology plan were also addressed, but the plan was 
not adopted in total. As you will see, the financial commitment to 
technology was considerably less than the committee suggested.
(includes link to original plan and cost analysis)

When I joined the committee in the summer of 2002, the majority of 
members had been on the committee since its inception. The first few 
monthly meetings I attended consisted of a lot of talk about the 
importance of GIS, but not much more. That fall, Bill Groves, prior 
chair, prompted the committee to undertake a new strategic plan. After a 
couple of months of discussion, the committee asked Bob Avery to send 
out a survey to all the department chairs. Unfortunately, I have not 
been able to find a copy of the survey or the questions we asked. The 
town manager endorsed this survey and the responses we got back were 
informative and detailed.

Through text analysis, we identified three (3) primary areas of concern 
by the managers:

1.    Infrastructure: my recollection is that all or nearly all of the 
departments had serious concerns about infrastructure.  Planning and 
Inspections want to issue permits and licenses online; public safety 
needs more current data to be available to officers in the field; etc.
2.    Communications: several departments were contracting out for their 
departmental websites. They wanted a consolidated site; better training 
for staff; and better communications with their public. Public safety, 
planning and the fire department all want to use GIS tools, which we 
included here under communications and under document management.
3.    Document management: Engineering summed up the problem: "Efforts 
should continue Townwide to decrease the volume of "paper"

In our February 2004 report to Council (part of budget review process), 
we notified Council that we would be working on a strategic plan focused 
on these three areas of concern. The presentation (attached) identified 
a goal, beneficiary, and planned actions for each. We also provided some 
statistics on what portion of the budget towns of similar sizes commit 
to technology and notified Council of our intention to formalize 
policies on network security, data recovery, and environmental 
sustainability. Our budget recommendations were to hire a web master, a 
GIS manager, an e-democracy ombudsman, as well as consultants to help 
flesh out the three (3) plans. We also supported hiring an additional PC 
technician at Bob's request. In addition, we promised to make quarterly 
reports on our progress. Outcome: A PC technician and a webmaster were 
included in the 2004 budget. We've haven't lived up to the promise to 
make quarterly reports.
(presentation attached: CTC Council Participation--2-2004)

Following the presentation, which I think we all felt very positive 
about, members of the committee signed up to work on one of the issues. 
We separated GIS out into its own separate group at that point and the 
Communication issue became the web strategy subcommittee, which assumed 
responsibility for document management. The task for each of the three 
(3) subcommittees was to develop a plan to accomplish to goals set out 
in the presentation.

Editorial aside: This is where we began to experience some problems. Was 
our mission to address staff concerns or provide a vision for how 
technology could be used by citizens? We've tried to straddle the line 
on this, which has, in my opinion, contributed to some of our internal 
debates and our failure to elicit more support from Council.

The Web Strategy Group, composed of Ralph Beisner, Evelyn Daniel and 
myself, got right to work and submitted a plan that was voted on and 
approved by the full committee in July 2004. The plan was intended to 
"provide an integrated, standards-based website easily accessed by 
Chapel Hill citizenry, town employees, local businesses, and other 
interested parties." The plan is deceptively simple and is focused 
primarily on creating document standards for easy searching and 
archiving, and accessibility (dial up connections, public computers, 
Section 508). It included focus groups with citizens and town staff in 
order to develop a more 'finely grained communications plan.' Our 
expectation was that Bob would keep the old site running for another 6 
months while this plan was implemented.
(I believe you have all received a copy of this plan--if not, please let 
me know and I'll distribute it again.)

When we presented the web strategy plan (October 2004?) to Council, the 
presentation included a 5-minute description of e-democracy (the 
committee's vision for IT) followed by an explanation for how the web 
strategy would accomplish that 'vision.'  After many emails back and 
forth, we had agreed to a definition of e-democracy as "the use of 
digital communication technologies to promote direct and active 
participation in government." While we succeeded in introducing the 
concept of e-democracy to Council and showing them excellent websites 
from smaller, less erudite communities, they didn't take any action 
(such as referring the plan to staff so that it could be funded). It's 
my opinion, they didn't understand that we wanted them to accept it 
since we didn't 'petition' them to do so.

In July 2004 the committee had its first significant membership change. 
Most of the new members of the committee were assigned to the 
Infrastructure subcommittee. As I recall, Doug Noell is the only senior 
committee member who worked with that group which began developing their 
plan in November 2004. They faced a steep learning curve since no one on 
that group had been involved in the discussions leading up to the 
February 2004 presentation to Council. The GIS group also got revved up 
that fall and by spring we had a plan from both groups. I don't remember 
which months we voted to accept the two but it was before April. Gregg 
has provided you all with copies of the infrastructure plan I believe.

While those two (2) subgroups were working, the committee as a whole 
made another trip to Council on November 15, 2004 for a 'working' 
meeting on e-democracy (our vision). Our intention was to listen to what 
Council members thought about e-democracy. But they didn't speak 
initially and so (this won't surprise anyone) our members stepped up and 
started talking. We never did hear what Council members thought before 
that meeting, but we've heard repeatedly how confused they were 
afterwards. The problem I think comes for our own internal disagreements 
on the difference between e-democracy and digital government. The chair, 
Alan Rimer, sent a follow up memo in December trying to save the 
situation by answering questions we thought we heard from Council.
(see attached: Memo to Council on Meeting of 11-15VF)

While the infrastructure and GIS committees were working on their plans, 
Bob Avery decided to issue a RFP for a new town website. Although the 
RFP included some elements of the web strategy plan, it focused more on 
meeting Bob's desire for a content management system than elements such 
as the document creation standards that were foundational to the 
committee-endorsed web strategy. After several meetings in which we 
tried to hash this problem out, we were informed that Bob had entered 
the town into a contest for a free website and that we had won. At that 
point, the RFP and the web strategy plans were set aside. The town's new 
web master, who started work on July 1, is now working with CivicPlus 
and web managers from the various town departments, to move the town 
site into their system. The manager has informed all departments that 
they will move their sites into CivicPlus so that the town will have a 
unified look and feel (and reduced costs). The preliminary contract was 
for two (2) years of free hosting of X number of documents. We know the 
full archive will not be going into CivicPlus, but we have not seen the 
final contract so no additional details can be provided at this time.

In late fall 2004, we began recommending that Steve Irving be appointed, 
as the committee's representative to the Town Operations Center planning 
group. We also requested that Gregg Gerdau be appointed as the 
committee's representative on the Budget Advisory Committee. Neither of 
these requests was acted upon although Alan Rimer was appointed to the 
Budget committee so we did have representation. Although we have 
representatives from the Library and Public Safety attending our 
meetings somewhat regularly, we have little to no interaction with the 
rest of the town departments. If we are ever going to make any 
difference in this town, we need to help Council understand that 
technology is more than just computers. The fact that they sent the 
SmartCard for parking issue to us is a step in the right direction even 
if it did come too late (parking meters had already been purchased).

Around January 2005, in preparation for Alan's departure as Chair, along 
with Roscoe Reeves, Bill Groves, and Doug Noell, all members since the 
committee's inception, we began developing our own set of bylaws, using 
the council procedures guide and the planning boards bylaws as our 
guide. The bylaws were adopted in April 2005, and our first election was 
conducted in May 2005. This group of members will be the first to 
operate under these formal guidelines rather than the more casual 
atmosphere of the past. We have some learning to do in terms of process.
(You should each have a copy of the bylaws, if not, please advise.)

Our most recent Council appearance was in April 2005. Council had asked 
each of the advisory boards to make recommendations on how to save the 
town money. Alan presented our cost savings recommendation along with 
the 3 technology plans (consisting of a spreadsheet for infrastructure, 
web strategy, and GIS) as his last official act as chair. Once again, 
the Council did not forward the plans on to staff so they are, at this 
time, not officially recognized by the Town Council or the Town Manager.
(see attached: 3-23 TC Meeting Talking Points)

We were the only advisory board to act upon the Council request for cost 
savings suggestions. In the process of developing these recommendations, 
we found the original technology plan from 2000 and the manager's 
response to that plan. Bob Avery also provided a more current report on 
the plan's status (see above). To our surprise, that 5-year old plan 
addressed most of the issues included in our current plans. That fact 
signaled, to some of us, that the committee's big challenge is to figure 
out how to push these plans through Council. That is the origin of my 
statement at the last meeting that we have been "political" failures. We 
have developed good, solid technology recommendations and presented them 
to Council. But the council has not taken action on either the plans or 
the vision of e-democracy. However, our Council representative, Mark 
Kleinschmidt, has now attended two meetings and has promised to help 
guide us as we become more sophisticated in pushing forward our agenda.

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